Pros: Amazing sound, low power consumption, sturdy speaker connectors, features, price
Cons: Could look better, no HDMI switching
I convinced myself that I needed to update my Panasonic SA-HE70 receiver. The HE70 is a 5.1-channel receiver that can produce 100 W per channel into 6 Ohms, but it was rated at 40-20,000 Hz at 0.9% THD. I wanted something that has lower distortion numbers.
I did not need fancy features like HDMI switching and did not want to spend too much, yet wanted to still get excellent sound. I had several choices. I could go with the highly-rated Marantz SR4500. I also considered the Pioneer 815. Or I could get the Panasonic SA-XR55.
I have read on several online forums that the Panasonic XR55 (and others from the XR line) produce amazing sound. Some people claimed that they sold their previous (very expensive) gear, because the XR55 sounded as good or almost as good. Obviously, I was a bit skeptical at first, since the XR55 sells for only $230-250. But I decided to give it a try.
What is Unusual About the XR55?
The Panasonic SA-XR55 is among so-called Class D amplifiers. The major difference with amplifiers of other types (A, B, AB, H, H+, etc.) is that the Class D is digital (the others are analog) and features very high efficiency (more than 90%). This translates into lower power consumption, less heat and smaller dimensions.
The signal from your DVD or CD player (or other device that has a digital out) is kept in digital domain longer, producing less noise and other sonic benefits (which I will describe later).
What is Panasonic SA-XR55
The Panasonic SA-XR55 is a digital home theatre receiver, available in black or silver color. It uses a Class-D digital amplifier for sever channels to provide a 7.1 configuration. The receiver is rated to deliver 100 W into 6-Ohm speakers at 0.09% THD. It has (among others) two optical and two coaxial digital inputs, component video switching, S-Video switching as well as a multi-channel analog input.
The receiver has sturdy speaker binding posts for all speakers (unlike other inexpensive receivers that have spring clips). In addition to 7 channels, the receiver supports a separate set of stereo speakers (A/B switching available). It also supports bi-wired/bi-amped configuration, in which you run two separate connections to each of your two front speakers (if speakers support it): one for high frequencies, another for lows.
The receiver is rated to deliver a frequency response of 4-88,000 Hz from digital sources and 4-44,000 from analog sources at +/-3 dB. The rated Singnal/Noise ratio is 85 dB (103 dB IHF 66).
The receiver supports Dolby Pro Logic IIx and DTS Neo:6.
The receiver I got is in silver color. It has the same width and depth as my previous receiver, but is less tall and is lighter. The XR55 has a modern look, which I like less than the look of classical receivers. But who cares about the way it looks if it sounds good?
Connectivity was easy. The receiver has large binding posts for all speakers. I connected my Athena AS-F1 towers to front left/right channels, Athena C.5 for center, Athena S.5 surrounds and Athena P200 subwoofer to form a 5.1 configuration. I do not have enough space for the complete 7.1 setup, but once I move, I will definitely us the two S.5 rear surrounds.
The setup was relatively easy, even without the manual. I set all speakers to Large and assigned the proper device to the digital inputs I used (e.g. assigned Optical 1 to DVD).
The remote control that came with the receiver can control many functions of my DVD player (menu navigation, etc.) and is powered by 2 supplied AA batteries. It has two separate power buttons (for the receiver and the AV component currently controlled). The buttons have a good tactile feel.
The XR55 is a 7.1-channel receiver, which can output 100 W into 6 Ohms (7 channels). It consumes only 135 W as opposed to my SA-HE70, which consumed 320 W. The XR55 has no fan and it does not even need one. At moderate listening volumes it gets only little warm. This is one of the advantages of digital amplification.
I expected very low noise at idle and was surprised to hear some slight hiss. But once I put my ear to one of the speakers, I noticed that the hiss was not coming from the speakers. It was actually coming from the receiver itself, even at standby. The hiss is very slight (even lower in volume than the noise made by a working VCR), does not increase with the volume and cannot be heard at distances over 8 feet.
I find the receiver and its remote easy to use. The display is large and the buttons on the remote are clearly marked.
I have used the receiver mostly to listen to the music (in Stereo, 5.1 DTS Surround or converted from stereo DPL IIx/DTS Neo). I also watch movies with Dolby Digital/DTS soundtracks.
The performance of the XR55 is nothing short of stunning. My previous receiver was not pure crap, but the XR55 is much, much better. First of all, there is no noise in silent passages, whereas the HE70 had some slight hiss. The sound is much more accurate overall, not as warm, but I would not call it bright either. Obviously, it also depends on your speakers.
All of my observations apply to a digital signal. I have not tried to critically evaluate the signal from the analog input. It should be a bit worse, since the signal has to be converted into the digital form before the amplification.
In stereo mode (no bi-wiring since the Athena F1 cannot be bi-wired), the sound became truly 3-dimentional. It is like if someone removed the barrier between me and the music. I can definitely hear more instruments in the familiar recordings, more detail.
I listened to a variety of recording. From classical like Wagner and John Williams to Hard Rock and Metal (Metallica, Dio). Doors, Aphex Twin, Telefon Tel Aviv, Dire Straits... All of them sounded much better. One immediate discovery I made was I can now easily distinguish a poorly-recorded CD from the one that is recorded well. For example some of my operas by Wagener sounded amazingly well, whereas the CD of preludes from his operas did not sound too well.
I heard that some people claimed that the sound was too bright for their taste. If you like very warm sound, the XR55 might be a less than optimal choice. Not for me. It does not sound too bright for me, just very accurate. I saw a test result where the frequency response from the XR70 (similar hardware) was ruler-flat (20-20,000 Hz at +/-0.1 dB).
On the “LA Woman” album of Doors, I could feel what kind of room some of the songs were recorded in. I could hear the small sounds I never knew were there. In most of my recordings, I discovered something new. In fact, I could almost hear not only the horizontal position, but the distance to and the height at which each instrument was located. I know, sounds like a stretch, but it is true.
The sound, even from only two speakers, is three-dimensional and the imaging is amazing. I also tried the DPL IIx Music mode and DTS Neo Music. I liked DPL slightly better than DTS. The simulated surround gave some music even more spaciousness and was well-suited to electronic music. Things like Telefon Tel Aviv, Aphex Twin and Air sounded amazing in DPL IIx Music.
The receiver can be driven to high volumes with no signs of strain. At any volume, the dynamics are not compromised and the receiver sounds very responsive. Try as I might, I could hear no digital artifacts (in good-quality recordings). There are several modes of digital re-mastering to smooth the rough edges of MP3s and CDs that are not well-recorded. They work moderately well.
In summary, the XR55 provides amazingly good sound at very low price and I expect to save some money on my electric bill since it is so efficient.
As of 03/2009, I have used this receiver for over 3 years and it still works flawlessly.
If you need HDMI switching, try the Panasonic SA-XR70. Alternatively, if you need HDMI pass-through and DVD-Audio playback over HDMI, check out the Panasonic SA-XR57.
I am stunned by the sound quality of this receiver. The XR55 is insanely cheap, has lots of useful features and amazing sound quality. I highly recommend it!